The opposition has brought about real change, according to Opposition Leader David Granger, who says there has been a strengthened National Assembly and greater scrutiny of the executive despite constraints.
Granger does not believe that the opposition has scuttled the opportunities presented by its one-seat majority in the National Assembly after the last general elections but charged that one must first look at the context in which the 10th Parliament began, with the biggest issues being the National Assembly having little autonomy because of the PPP/C’s previous majority and diminished level of accountability by ministers.
The opposition has been criticised by many who have charged that it has not strategically utilised its one-seat majority and that there is little or no progress in any of its initiatives, resulting in no benefits for those who would have voted for them.
But Granger, who spoke to the Sunday Stabroek recently in a wide ranging interview, said that for a proper assessment of the opposition’s performance over the last two years one would first have to examine the landscape that existed at the beginning of the 10th Parliament. He charged that there was little autonomy in the National Assembly because of the majority that the ruling party enjoyed before the November 28, 2011elections. He said the PPP/C had been in government with a parliamentary majority for 20 years and during that time there were widespread abuses, including the “demolition of the role of the National Assembly in which it could have been felt that the Parliament Office was almost being run as a department of the Office of the President.”
Granger also pointed out that APNU only has 26 seats, while the AFC has seven and so while combined they have a majority, it is held by two separate entities.
“We have to negotiate before we vote together. So given those two considerations, that the opposition is really made up two different parties, APNU and AFC, and that the landscape was essentially unfavourable, we had to do a lot of groundwork in order to make progress,” Granger said. That being said, Granger, who is the leader of both APNU and its main constituent the PNCR, believes that “a lot of progress has been made” and first among these was the building up of the National Assembly to the point where the Attorney-General Anil Nandlall has had to take him to court four times, including in regards to reduction of the 2012 budget.
Granger, however, noted that the decision in the case delivered by acting Chief Justice Ian Chang has been criticised as it appears to intrude on the autonomy of the National Assembly. In his recent decision, Justice Chang declared that the National Assembly acted “unlawfully and unconstitutionally” by effecting cuts to the 2012 budget estimates, after finding that its power is limited to either giving or withholding approval. According to Justice Chang, while the Assembly may approve or not approve the Finance Minister’s estimates of expenditure, it has no power to change them by either reducing or increasing them.
Granger said the other cases in court clearly demonstrate that the executive branch wants to challenge the authority of the legislative branch.
Asked how soon an appeal would be filed against Chang’s decision, Granger noted that he was excluded from the case by Chang and while this decision has been appealed, he is no longer an interested party and cannot file an appeal to the final ruling. However, he said he understands that Speaker Raphael Trotman will file an appeal against the ruling and in the event that his own appeal of his exclusion is successful, they can then seek to have the matter re-committed.
Nevertheless, Granger also argued that accountability of government ministers has been “markedly enhanced” because the ministers are now called upon to answer questions in greater detail and provide more information for the financial papers. “It is a refreshing difference,” he said.
And when measuring the success of the opposition, Granger said it must first be understood that the opposition is not the government and persons should not run away with the idea that because APNU and the AFC have the one-seat majority they can do anything.
“In fact, the role of the opposition has been defined by convention and by statue in the British parliamentary system and there are serious limitations to what the opposition can do, particularly in the area of finance,” Granger said.
He added that while many have expectations, the opposition cannot take financial papers to the National Assembly but has to wait until a measure has been brought and having been brought it can use its voting power to amend but not increase expenditure.
When it was pointed out that the budget cuts have not been effective, that there has been no marked increase in public servant wages and the Public Procurement Commission is still to be activated, Granger again reminded that the landscape was not ideal and that the opposition could not take any financial papers to the Assembly. On the issue of public servants’ wages, he said that it is one thing for APNU to declare 2014 the year for workers but the combined opposition had appealed during the 2013 budget for increases for public servants and he has made statements in support of the Guyana Public Service Union calling for the government to sit down with the union and arrive at an outcome which is favourable to both sides. “The opposition cannot be blamed for that [public servants not receiving significant salary increase] because we have done what is legally possible to bring about change in that regard,” Granger stated.
Meanwhile, Granger said that the opposition is constrained by not having ready access to counsel who is trained in drafting bills and this is a hindrance to it bringing bills to the National Assembly. “We are not the government. We do not have the resources to draft bills,” Granger said, adding that the absence of counsel has been a major stumbling block to the opposition drafting bills.
He added that when the opposition has succeeded in drafting and passing bills, the government has resisted them. President Donald Ramotar even before seeing the bills declared that he would not assent to bills in which the executive has not had input.
Granger pointed out that the opposition does not have the staff, experts or a large body of civil servants at its disposal and that has been another constraint. But in light of these challenges, he believes the opposition has still made progress because they have been able to “tap into expertise and when measures are brought before us which we feel are opaque…we have been able to get advice or recommendations from stakeholders and from civil society.”
He said the advice given informed their decisions on the now almost dead Amaila Falls project and advice was also received on the Skeldon Sugar Factory and the expansion of the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.
Former government minister Dr Henry Jeffrey, who had endorsed APNU during the last elections, has recently accused APNU of adopting useless strategies, such as the call for the enhancement of the city and a social contract. Asked about recent criticisms, Granger noted that the partnership is governed by what is the public interest. He revealed that the partnership meets as a Cabinet and receives advice and considers the problems facing them. Jeffrey, who made his criticisms in his weekly column in the Stabroek News, had also suggested that the partnership consider other actions, such as protests, but Granger said they do not believe the time is right for that.
Even though Jeffrey criticised the call by APNU for a social contract as a means of attaining an inclusionary democracy, Granger said the partnership feels there is an opportunity and an opening for labour, government, opposition, private sector and civil society to sit together and make the present dispensation work. He said the social contract strategy should be given a chance to work.
“Simply going on the streets will not solve City Hall’s problems but we need, as a nation, to combine the energies of government, opposition, labour, employers and civil society to hammer out a social contract so that over the next two years or more of the life of the 10th Parliament we can work in a consensual way,” Granger argued.
‘Has not failed’
Asked what were the major failures of APNU and the joint opposition, Granger said that partnership has not failed and that it is the executive branch of government which has been recalcitrant and which has failed to behave in a publicly responsible manner.
He pointed out that APNU has embraced the education system, employment for young people, and public security, among others, which he said all signify failures on part of the government.
“In keeping with the role of the opposition to scrutinise and to demand actions on the part of the government, APNU has stood out and APNU has brought about real change,” Granger said.
He further said that he could not think of any policy line that APNU has followed which was not in the public interest and which could be said to have failed and according to him the “partnership has had a positive two years.”
Meanwhile, Granger said the joint opposition has not had consultation about the upcoming budget because there is no budget before them. When this is unveiled, he said, they would “collaborate and cooperate on a strategy.”